The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises October 10 as World Mental Health Day. The theme for this year as set by the World Federation for Mental Health is ‘Mental health in an unequal world’. And, this inequality is much more visible in a diverse and large country like India.
A 2017 Lancet study that analysed the prevalence of mental disorders across several Indian states found that there were 197.3 million people in the country with mental health issues. This means that at that point, at least 14.3% of the total population of the country was affected by some form of mental illness. What’s even more alarming is the treatment gap; there were only about 9,000 psychiatrists in India for a country of a billion people.
Even though the Honorable President of India, Ram Nath Kovind stated in 2017 that the country was in fact, “facing a possible mental health epidemic,” out of India’s annual healthcare budget, only 0.5% is allocated for mental health. In developed countries, this number is anywhere between 5-18%. This, in addition to jarring social inequalities, translates to poor access to mental health care for the marginalized.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation. According to a survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society, there has been a 20% increase in the number of people suffering from poor mental health since the pandemic gripped the world in early 2020. It also indicates that women and students are likely to exhibit relatively higher levels of psychological duress due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Autism and Mental Illness
While people with autism are four times more likely to be diagnosed with overlapping depression, about 25% to 75% of young adults diagnosed with autism also struggle with anxiety. The findings of an umbrella review published by Science Direct, suggest a high prevalence of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, bipolar and mood disorders, schizophrenia spectrum, suicidal behavior disorder, and other psychiatric disorders co-occurring among individuals with ASD. In autistic adults, depending upon the severity of the symptoms, identification, and differentiation of mental health disorders is also more complicated as compared to neurotypical individuals.
Moreover, depression and anxiety among parents and primary caregivers of autistic people is also commonplace. A study conducted on 100 parents/caregivers of autistic people found that autism is associated with burden and stress for parents/caregivers of the affected child. The demands placed by the disability contribute to a higher overall incidence of depression and anxiety among parents/caregivers.
Management of overlapping mental illnesses in autistic children, adolescents, and adults can be difficult but it isn’t impossible. Here are a few tips that might help in preventing and minimizing depression and anxiety in autistic children and adults:
- Modify the environment around them to suit their needs. Try to create a calm and productive space for them.
- Create a calendar of activities so that they know what to expect and stick to a routine that they are comfortable with. It will also help them in transitioning between different activities smoothly.
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule that ensures adequate sleep and rest.
- Help them find effective ways to communicate what they are feeling and most importantly listen to them when they try to express their emotions.
- Pay special attention to their physical health and wellbeing. Create a custom diet plan for them that ensures optimum nutrition as nutritional deficiencies can aggravate mental health issues.
- Encourage them to take up regular exercise, yoga, or other mindfulness techniques such as meditation to lower their stress levels.
- Help them recognize their strengths and use positive affirmations to boost their self-esteem.
Early diagnosis of autism and timely intervention can help autistic children develop healthy coping mechanisms and significantly improve their socialization and communication skills. Being able to understand and express their thoughts and feelings better can lead to a lowered risk of developing anxiety and depression.
Several therapies can prove to be beneficial in preventing depression and anxiety in autistic individuals. Behavioral therapy teaches them to focus on their thought patterns and emotions while creative and expressive therapies help in identifying and expressing complex emotions.